Breakthroughs at Astana

 

This week’s Russian-sponsored peace conference may have been low-key, but it moved the Syrian conflict into a completely new phase

 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

There was a distinct lack of fanfare at the international conference on Syria held this week in the Kazakh capital Astana. The two-day gathering closed with a brief press conference at which the Kazakh foreign minister read out a business-like statement – on behalf only of the co-guarantors Russia, Turkey and Iran, but neither of the Syrian delegations – and no questions were taken.

But the low-key tone maintained by the organizers was misleading. By bringing together representatives of the Syrian government and the armed opposition for the first time – even if they did not talk directly – it achieved a breakthrough and took the conflict in Syria onto the threshold of a new phase.  

 

There are four key features of the Astana conference which no observer or analyst can afford to ignore that justify such a conclusion:

First, what began as a bilateral Russian-Turkish cease-fire initiative was expanded to include Iran – as a full co-guarantor of truce implementation – while excluding the Arab parties involved in the conflict along with the US and Europe. These are the countries – Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular – that have hitherto played the principal role in sustaining the armed Syrian opposition with huge infusions of cash and weapons. Details of why and how they were kept, or kept themselves, out of the conference will doubtless transpire in due course.

Secondly, a complete separation was made not only between the armed opposition factions and those deemed to be terrorist – as Moscow has long sought and worked for – but also between them and the various political opposition formations led mainly by exiles. The armed factions have meanwhile effectively been enlisted in the fight against the terrorist organizations – namely Islamic State and the Fateh ash-Sham (Nusra) Front, and possibly Ahrar ash-Sham too.

Third, Russia made the transition – as far as the armed opposition is concerned — from being an ‘occupation force’ in Syria and chief sponsor of the regime to becoming an accepted go-between and guarantor of a cease-fire and political settlement. Even Muhammad Alloush, the head of the opposition negotiating team and leader of Jaish al-Islam, spoke positively of Russia and his talks with its delegates and expressed confidence in them.

Fourth, while the conference was officially devoted to arranging details of the cease-fire, delegates also discussed a long-term political settlement and interim arrangements, at least informally. Russian delegation chief Alexander Lavrentiev revealed he gave the opposition delegates a copy of a proposed new Syrian constitution which Russian exports had drafted. The substance of this document remains unknown, as does the Syrian government’s opinion of it (presuming it was given a copy too).

The Astana gathering can therefore be considered to have achieved breakthroughs on several fronts. It established new ground-rules in the search for peace in Syria. It defined the main players in that quest, both Syrian (the government and the armed opposition on the round) and regional (Turkey and Iran), with Russia as the big-power external partner. And it brought the three co-guarantors together despite their deep differences over a range of issues, uniting them in a fight against a common enemy, the extremist Islamist groups.

We could be witnessing the end of the war between the so-called moderate armed groups sponsored by Turkey and the Syrian regime, and the start of a new and perhaps even fiercer war pitting these groups against IS, Nusra and Fateh ash-Sham.

The Arab and external players that were side-lined or excluded from the Astana deal could try to foil it by stepping up direct of indirect support to the other armed factions – who command many thousands of fighters, be they Islamist or Kurdish. This may well be there response to the perceived marginalization of their role in Syria and the replacement of their agenda for the country by one which strengthens Iran’s role and keeps President Bashar al-Asad and his government in power.

Syrian delegation leader Bashar al-Jaafari made the most telling remark after the conference closed: ‘We are waiting for the armed opposition to join the Syrian Arab Army in fighting Nusra and Da’esh.’

To my mind at least, this sums up the real aim of the Astana gathering and is a pointer to the future.

There is a well-known Levantine proverb which roughly translates as: ‘Every dance begins with a shuffle’. It fairly describes the steps that have been taken, and the spins and pirouettes they have led to, by all parties concerned: from the government to the Turks to the armed opposition.

When Jaafari and Alloush sit around the same table under the same roof, it is advisable not to rule anything out, including the previously unthinkable — such as armed opposition groups fighting under the banner of the Syrian army against the terrorist-branded factions.

The harsh verbal exchanges traded by the delegation chiefs at the conference can be seen as motions that had to be gone through before getting down to the real business.  This is standard practice in negotiations of this kind.

The hosts of the Astana meeting may have made a point of stressing the importance of the imminent resumption of the Geneva talks, and of inviting UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and talking up his role. But this seems to have been an artful diplomatic deception aimed at avoiding ruffling too many feathers. 

The reality is that the political process in Syria has been brought back to square one: negotiations between the regime and the home-based opposition, be it armed or peaceful.

As for the opposition in exile, a decision seems to have been taken to gradually remove it from the scene, or to relegate it and the states that sponsor it to an advisory role. We await enlightenment from Moscow on that count.